Dreams Coming True in Denver

Eric Ebel and Kris-Angela Washington, two kids involved in Young Life during their high school years, are benefiting from a golden opportunity; one which offers them the chance to grow in their relationship with Christ alongside other believers, impact the lives of kids in inner-city Denver and receive a free college education while doing so. Where does such an opportunity come from?

In the summer of 2007, Young Life Central Denver, Mile High Ministries and Colorado Christian University (CCU) established a partnership entitled the “Transformative Leaders Apprenticeship” (TLA) “to house and train young adults who are emerging as ministry leaders in and for inner-city Denver.” This apprenticeship is aimed at those with great leadership potential who might not ordinarily enter college, due to financial or other restrictions. While taking classes within their chosen major at CCU, these students will also take six courses together that comprise a Young Life minor; these courses focus on ministry leadership, spiritual foundations, adolescent development and cross-cultural ministry, with an emphasis on Young Life’s style of relational evangelism.

And the icing on this academic cake? Upon successful completion of coursework requirements, students receive a scholarship that covers full tuition at CCU. But the learning doesn’t stop there; throughout the two years, the students also receive training in how to take their theology to the streets and “flesh out” the good news of the Gospel in the inner city.

The inaugural year of the TLA, by all accounts, was amazing. Eric Ebel, currently in his second year of the program and Young Life student staff at Manual High School, shares what his time in the program has meant to him: “It’s been a dream of mine to live in an eclectic community, to sit under and be discipled by veteran leaders of the community, and to seek higher education. I’m in awe that all three have come together under one umbrella.”

Stemming the Tide

“This kind of partnership has been a dream of mine since my first year on staff,” shared Albus Brooks, Young Life area director for Central Denver. “I’ve seen how life can become a black hole for many kids after they graduate from high school.”

Jeff Johnsen, executive director of Mile High Ministries, put this “black hole” reality into jaw-dropping perspective: “So many of these city kids don’t succeed, because when they do enter into college, it’s a foreign environment for them. In this neighborhood about 50 percent of the kids drop out of high school. Of those who don’t drop out, only one-third go on to college. Of those who go to college only a third finish. So when you do the math you end up with a very small percentage of kids getting degrees.”

So three years ago, Brooks began an ongoing conversation about this challenge with Johnsen and Terry Leprino Doig, a regional trainer for Young Life who teaches courses within the Young Life minor at CCU. After a year of dreaming, praying and strategizing, the three were ready to begin the apprenticeship. With primary funding coming from a foundation which Doig runs, and CCU’s agreement to help with scholarships for first-generation college students, the TLA was ready to move forward.

Seven apprentices finished out the first year and twice as many enrolled this fall; all that despite the program’s high standards. “It’s 60 hours a week they’re committing to,” Brooks noted. “The applicants we’re looking for are young adults from the city who are leaders; they may be rough around the edges, but when they enter a room, wow, leadership emerges. These are our best kids.”

Kids like Ebel, who by his sophomore year in high school was already leading a WyldLife club. His Young Life experience in high school developed in Ebel “an apostolic heart to go to hard places,” like when he started a club his junior year with entirely underprivileged students who came from extremely difficult backgrounds.

Of course, those who have been faithful with little will be entrusted with more, and as the stakes of leadership increase, so do the demands. Kris-Angela Washington, also in her second year in the TLA, knows these two years will push her: “It gets hard balancing school, ministry, the TLA, family and friends; I know it will be a challenge, but I also know that it promotes growth.”

Ebel is honest in assessing the demands he’s faced this past year: “I’ve indeed struggled with thoughts of leaving the program because of feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes it simply seems like too much to handle, and I question if I can truly handle it as a 19-year-old. This is coupled with the Lord’s call on my life, however, and upon true examination, I know, beyond any doubt, that this is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.”

Growing Up

All this learning does not just take place in the classroom or in meeting rooms — much of it goes on in the students’ living quarters. During the apprenticeship, students live in an apartment building in northeast Denver, where the learning sometimes comes in unexpected ways. Vic Nellum and his wife, Q, are the on-site coordinators, living with their two children in the apartment building, and helping students navigate community living. “It’s exciting to see these folks living in the context of community. What do you do when you come home, open the fridge and see someone ate your fruit? How do you work with that?”

The students acknowledge that learning how to live in close quarters has, at times, been a work in progress. Ebel admitted, “Living in community is a challenging endeavor and the balance between respect and love and being real in all situations is one that has and will continue to stretch me.”

The apartment housing where the students live is known as the Issachar Community. Understanding the times and knowing what should be done in central Denver is an apt description of what these students are experiencing firsthand.

“I’ve learned what it means to care for ‘the least,’ to catch a vision for people’s lives and to call them into the freedom of Christ,” Ebel said. “I’ve learned what it means to experience the brokenness of the world and then to watch Christ’s light cast out darkness. I’ve learned how to sit with people in their pain and to invite them, God willing, into a new paradigm of God’s love for them; and I’ve learned to be patient and use my eagerness for the King’s Glory and not to fuel my own selfishness and pride.”

Now what?

What do students take with them after the two years are over? During the program each of the 14 students is placed on a club team at a local high school or middle school, with the possibility that they will one day become the team leader.

Mission trips and serving on summer staff at Young Life camps are part of the continuing growth plan for the students when they have completed their official two-year apprenticeship. “Once they’re done living in community our hope is that they make the choice to live near schools where they’re already serving, and continue to impact that school,” Doig said. “Whether they end up on Young Life staff or not, they are going to be a transforming force in their community — the TLA has potential to transform a city long term.” Washington knows that what she’s learning will far outlast her college experience. “It’s been amazing learning what it means to do ministry in an urban setting,” she shared, “and how to apply it to my personal life.”

And as for the communities in the heart of Denver? “It’s pretty exciting when you look at this group of people and realize they’re all going to school,” Johnsen mused. “And I’m starting to hear about the ripples in the community as the younger kids who are now in high school watch them go to college. It’s been about creating a new expectation for this peer group; we’re creating a culture excited about going to college.”

Not only are inner-city kids benefiting by seeing older friends attend college, but they’re also receiving the benefits firsthand, as the apprentices pass on their “riches” to them. Among the many kids Ebel’s befriended, one named Cameron represents so many within this community. Born in Ohio in his mother’s crack house, he quickly grew up into a life of gangs and drug addictions. After being shipped to Denver to live with his grandmother, he fell back into trouble. Ebel formed a relationship with Cameron by helping to coach his freshman football team.

“We began to dig into each other’s lives and within weeks, Pogo (his nickname) and I were on our way to snow camp with seven of his freshman classmates. That weekend, Pogo started living with purpose and started desiring more out of life than following the generations before him.” Cameron still has his ups and downs, but he also has Ebel there through it all. Ebel hasn’t given up on Cameron, however. “We talk weekly and I find myself on a journey with a kid who desires so much more than what is right in front of him; and he’s beginning to realize he can find it in Christ.”

An intersection that may never have happened were it not for the apprenticeship, a reality not lost on Ebel. “Young Life represents the outpouring of all that God is filling up through the apprenticeship,” Ebel proclaimed. “It represents the place where we give our lives to kids and invite them into the freedom and purpose we have found in Jesus. This is always new and exciting when initiated and maintained by God.”

Funding and Friendship ...
  • To qualify for free tuition, students take out a loan from the foundation. Upon successful completion, the foundation pays off their loans; if the students don’t complete the year, however, they are responsible for paying off the loan.
  • The TLA is underwritten by Terry Leprino Doig’s foundation and local supporters.
  • Through the apprenticeship, the opportunity exists for donors to invest in students’ lives not only financially, but in an even more personal way. Donors have the opportunity to meet with students once or twice a semester so that there’s a relationship and accountability with that person.